SAINT PETERSBURG - Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Friday said he had signed a controversial bill that sharply raises fines for opposition protesters despite pleas from rights activists to veto the law. The announcement comes days before Russia's beleaguered opposition plans to stage a mass rally protesting Putin's comeback to the Kremlin for a historic third term, and deals a blow to their efforts to keep their nascent movement alive after unprecedented rallies last winter. "I not only signed the law, I looked at the materials the Duma sent over," Putin said, referring to the lower house of parliament, and adding that the law was in line with European legislation.
The bill, sponsored by ruling party United Russia, will hike the maximum penalty for organisers of illegal protests to one million rubles ($32,100), while participants could be fined up to 300,000 rubles ($9,000).
Activists and human rights campaigners have condemned what they call draconian restrictions aimed at quashing dissent in Russia, with the head of the president's own council on human rights, Mikhail Fedotov, asking Putin to veto the bill.
"This is a mistake," former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told the Interfax news agency, referring to Putin's decision to sign off on the bill.
"From now on, there is no freedom of assembly in Russia," prominent commentator Yulia Latynina wrote in opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta before the announcement of the signing was made.
The office of Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin said that the bill was "hasty, contradictory, lacking a strict concept and precise criteria."
"This will only exacerbate the situation and inflame opposition moods," it said in a statement earlier this week.